Let’s just take a second to appreciate where we are right now. This time last year, on the second day of the Big Ten Tournament, Rutgers and Michigan players flooded the court with angst and excitement to do their shoot around before the biggest game of the season to date. Just a few minutes before the scheduled tip-off, word got around that commissioner Kevin Warren cancelled the tournament, leaving no reason for the players to continue practicing. Players walked back to the locker room with pain on their faces, knowing that their season was all but finished. Rutgers would not have the opportunity to make a run in the tournament, nor would they have the opportunity to participate in their first March Madness game since 1991.
The coronavirus came along at the absolute worst time for basketball fans, ridding us of the most memorable month of the year. It was incredibly painful for Rutgers players, especially seniors like Akwasi Yeboah, who would have to deal with the fact that he would never play another game of college basketball again. Questions about this season flooded everyone’s minds, and a Big Ten tournament come March 2021 was anything but a given.
This year, however, brings new excitement to college basketball fans, players, and coaches. With last year’s disappointment fresh in their minds, these next two tournaments provide an opportunity to get a taste of what was previously missed. An early exit would yield a second straight offseason of frustration, while a successful run would compensate for the missed chance from the prior year.
2021 Big Ten Tournament
Since previewing every game would be impossible, I will highlight the main points to look for in each half of the bracket, starting with top half led by Michigan and Purdue.
Looking at this half, it has hard to not recognize the overwhelming favorite, Michigan. If any team other than Michigan makes it to the championship game, it will definitely be a surprise. Teams like Illinois and Iowa would have made things much different in the top half, but as for now, Michigan’s main competitor has to be either Ohio State or Purdue. Sure, Michigan State could pull off the upset like they did last week (were they to beat Maryland), but having a back-to-back with Michigan fully rested will be a tall task to say the least. If Maryland beats Michigan State, I find it hard to see a way for them to make it past the Wolverines.
Assuming Ohio State takes care of business in their first game, they will have to face a fully rested Purdue squad. Purdue is easily one of the most underrated teams in the nation, as they are ranked fourth in the hardest conference without getting nearly the recognition they deserve. The way they play isn’t flashy, but coach Matt Painter gets the best out of all his players. After all, they are winners of 5 straight for a reason and completed the series sweep of Ohio State, with Trevion Williams averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds in the two contests. I see Purdue coming away from this game with a close win and seeing Michigan in the semi-finals.
In Purdue and Michigan’s last matchup, the Wolverines impressively controlled the tempo of the game throughout all 40 minutes. Williams and Hunter Dickinson effectively cancelled each other out, and the depth of Michigan was just too much for Painter to handle. I predict a similar contest where the pure quality of the Wolverines shines and overpowers the will of the Boilermakers, who we will see make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Finalist: (1) Michigan
The Big Ten is known for its consistent supply of upsets and surprises, but I just can’t think of a scenario where either Nebraska or Penn State do enough to knock off Wisconsin. Both teams have struggled mightily this season, and even that might be an understatement. Assuming Wisconsin doesn’t make a huge slip-up, the Badgers should meet up with the Hawkeyes in the quarterfinals.
Trying to put all the bias to the side, Rutgers should take care of business vs Indiana. The Scarlet Knights embarrassed the Hoosiers just a few weeks back on senior night, but it is very possible that a different outcome happens this Thursday. As we’ve seen a couple times this season, Rutgers has the tendency to underestimate their opponent and make a game out of a game in which they are the clear favorites. With that being said, the stakes are just too high for the Scarlet Knights to come out playing lackluster basketball. You get the sense that this is Rutgers’ best chance to make noise in March and Pikiell will have to do little to motivate his players to put in their best work.
Rutgers coaches must be ecstatic seeing Maryland choke against Penn State, resulting in the Terrapins receiving the 8 seed and Rutgers getting the 7 slot. Instead of having to play a Michigan State unit that pulled off 3 (three!) wins against top 5 teams and then having to go up against Michigan who we never seem to beat, we get Indiana and Illinois. Now, Illinois is obviously one of the most talented teams in the conference, but hard matchups were inevitable. You have to pick your poison in such a deep league, and I would 100% rather play an Illinois squad that we already beat instead of Michigan.
If Rutgers beats Indiana, Illinois would be a tall but doable task. Jacob Young is an elite defender that Pikiell can use to guard Ayo Dosunmu. Myles Johnson is capable of containing Kofi Cockburn and preventing him from taking over the game. Illinois will put up points, which makes it even more important for players like Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker to knock down their shots. In a 91-88 shootout, Harper Jr. had 28 points and Rutgers poured in 54 points in the second half. Trying to remain in an unbiased position, if I were an outsider betting on a Rutgers-Illinois quarterfinals, I would put my money on the Fighting Illini. So, for the purpose of this article, Illinois will unfortunately be moving on to the semifinals.
Iowa completed the season sweep of Wisconsin, and I see a similar result occurring in this prospective matchup. While the Hawkeyes are winners of 7 of their last 8, the Badgers are losers of 6 of their last 8. On paper, #6 Wisconsin and #3 Iowa should pan out to be competitive game, but I see Luka Garza taking over and ensuring Iowa doesn’t get embarrassed in their first game of the tournament.
Iowa’s game against Illinois would be a much different story. In their lone contest this season, Illinois edged out the Hawkeyes 80-75. Compared to my last prediction, this game would be perfect for the neutral fan. The two best players in the most competitive conference in the nation battling it out for the opportunity to advance to the Big Ten tournament finals, where legends are made. This game is so hard for me to predict, but watching both teams all season, I just have a feeling Iowa’s shooting from beyond the arc will overpower Illinois. The amount of accurate shooters they have is actually absurd and can easily take over a game and leave the opponent helpless. If they try and guard the three point line closely, Garza will abuse them in the paint. Good luck with that.
Finalist: (3) Iowa
Finals: (1) Michigan vs (3) Iowa
Now this game would be a treat that would make up for some of the lost action last year. Hunter Dickinson, Isaiah Livers, and co. vs Luka Garza, Joe Wieskamp, and co. Just a few weeks ago, Iowa had the opportunity to make a statement to the world and defeat a then 16-1 Wolverine squad. However, it was Juwan Howards’ team that made the statement and embarrassed the Hawkeyes (and Garza to the tune of 16 points in 33 minutes). If you think the same result will happen in the biggest college basketball game of the year to date, you’ll have another thing coming. In a nail-biter that takes every second to declare a victor, I predict the Hawkeyes to win it on a game-winning 3. 71-70, Iowa.